Humans are social beings and we need to socialise and to talk. Every conversation with others act as a portal to increase our learnings about life, about love and about compassion.
One-to-one conversation is easy to maintain since there are eye contact and the conversation is two-way – where both parties take turn to be both the speaker and the listener. As long as both are tuned in to the ensuing dialogue with minimal disagreement, their focus and congruency will ensure that a smooth verbal communication will take place. It might not be spontaneous or hyped up, but it will likely be a seamless flow of responses and acknowledgments, questions and answers, verbal thoughts and feedback.
Group conversations are much more challenging, since eye contact is spread thin over several parties that can span a dozen. People’s attention are constantly shifting, often due to lack of attention on them by the speaker and a dilution of focus results as thoughts shift with listeners’ eyes glazing over. While the speaker is speaking with some listeners looking at him while the rest nod their heads seemingly in silent agreement, here is a good question to ask:
How many are actually listening?
Unless one is a skilled facilitator, it is unlikely that anyone is able to answer the question above accurately. And even for a highly-skilled facilitator, he or she might misjudge the situation.
For group discussions, it is important that a group member be a facilitator, who will act as the anchor point to direct and re-direct questions and responses from one member to another. The group members can take turn to be facilitators in most cases, which is also a valid and great option (since it can be exhausting for a single facilitator to facilitate the entire session).
It is not possible to list out all possible situations that arise within a group interaction due to the enigmatic nature of group dynamics but it is reasonable to list out the likely scenarios that are common in group discussion. While this article does not attempt to turn the art of managing group interactions into a science, it simply is not possible to discuss and provide some insights into this subject matter without breaking them down into various common scenarios, as follows:
- Handling digressions: It is not often that a group discussion remains focused on the subject matter being discussed. Usually, someone may bring in a related or unrelated topic that brings the group members’ attention away from the primary discussion at hand. At times, it is easy to steer the conversation back on track by thanking the speaker and subsequently bringing the discussion back to the designated topic – especially when the topic is unrelated to the discussion. However, what do one do when a related point is brought up but it tends to bring the discussion in a different direction? For example, group members are discussing the various ways to organise a photography competition when a group member brought up logistics concern for food. While food provision is a related and important concern, the main discussion points are on brainstorming on the creative ways to organise the events. Delving into food concerns at this point will not not only create a digression, it will dilute the focus of the discussions and lengthen the discussion duration.
At this point, one should not brush off the contributing group member’s point but rather, inform him or her that her point will be noted and discussed later. And more importantly, write down the point that was contributed and ensure that this point is discussed subsequently in later meetings. Ignoring or overlooking (previous) contributions by group members is a serious and crucial mistake made by most facilitators of meetings and discussions. Integrity and valuing group members’ contributions are crucial in ensuring group members’ continual participation and involvement in ongoing discussion sessions.
Granting respect to all group members is one of the most important and determining factors in enhancing group dynamics.
- Handling a dominating speaker: There are times where a dominating speaker may interrupt a discussion session for various reasons, such as wanting to say something that comes to mind, having an intention to steer the discussion in his or her direction and the like. Be it the instance whereby a speaker is trying to express his or her viewpoint in a very detailed manner or if he or she is trying to take control of the discussion and steer it in his or her desired direction, the facilitator should step in to regain control of the situation. Some techniques that can be used includes directing a raised point by the dominating speaker to another group member to answer, interrupting the dominating speaker in the capacity of a facilitator while further elaborating on his or her points, and calling for a “time-out” session for everyone to take a break (During the break, talk casually to the dominating speaker and tactfully encourages him or her to provide opportunities for others to speak. Also, it will be good to inform the group members that as the facilitator, we will offer him or her the opportunity to elaborate on certain points upon our promptings during the discussion sessions. More often than not, he or she will comply).
- Handling a diversified discussion: Sometimes the discussion topic can be too wide, such as when brainstorming for ideas for a carnival. While efforts can be made to break the discussion session into separate topics such as types of booth available, logistic cost, wet weather considerations, types of sponsoring charities etc, it can be seen that certain topics such as the discussion on the types of booth will generate spontaneous ideas and outbursts that range from the types of games to be introduced to the rides that can be rented. This will somewhat create confusion for both the facilitator and the group members. A good solution will be to ride with the ideational wave rather than go against the tide. Take notes. Write every single idea down on the white board, notepad or whatever. White board would be a better idea as it has a larger surface area and a photo of what is written down can be taken and distributed to the group members after the discussions. This surely beats having everyone copy verbatim from a single notepad, yes? After all the points are noted down, the facilitator can split the points into different possible categories, such as – for this instance – types of game booths, types of food booths, types of rides etc. The discussion can then proceed further. In other words, using the “Divide and Conquer” strategy works well in this instance, breaking complex tasks into more manageable components.
- Handling a quiet group: Handling a quiet group is another situation commonly encountered in group discussions. It need not necessarily be due to the fact that most members are introverts. The discussion topic might be dull. The topic might be too technical. The environment might not be conducive for discussions. Understanding the causes behind the quietness is important and relevant. For example, we can change the discussion environment if possible. However, there are things that cannot be altered. For example, discussion topics are almost impossible to change if they are to be discussed within a specific context, which leaves us only with communication techniques to work with. So how then, can we tackle such a situation without a change in an environment but merely through the use of communication and facilitation techniques? No matter how dull a subject, we can always explore creative angles to ask questions that usually evoke answers. For example, for work processes – which are usually rather mundane – we can pose the following question to the group: “So, who has a funny story to tell about a particular work processes that you have gone through?” Interestingly, open-ended questions can create initial interest but hard to sustain attention throughout the discussion session. Seasoned facilitator frequently use humour during the session and pepper them throughout the entire duration of the meet. If the group members remain quiet after questions are raised, directing questions to specific group members would be good. However, tactfulness has to be exercised by choosing the more responsive members to respond. Failing to do so might irritate some members who are not attuned to be responsive, causing them to withdraw further or even becoming defensive.
- Handling verbal conflicts: Verbal conflicts are not as common as what some would assume. In fact, in-your-face conflicts are almost never seen in group discussion sessions unless one’s values have been attacked. Human nature contains the seed of respect for others and although this has always been attacked by one’s ego, usually respect for oneself and others wins out in the end. In fact, one would see more “trolling” in online forums than an angry outburst in an open discussion session. More commonly seen are the battle of sarcasm between two or more members, whereby one insults the other through the use of indirect references. For such situations, humour is often the social perfume that serves to diffuse them. This is usually initiated by the facilitator and spread by the neutral group members. Diffusing of tense situation is just one function of humour. It can also act as the bed which the offender and offended can fall back on without further verbal retaliation as all traces of anger and animosity dissolves in the mist of a humourous situation. Maintaining a calm composure (especially by the facilitator who should lead by example) is also very important as doing so tends to ease tension.
- Handling the quiet critic: When facilitating a discussion session, it will be wise not to be too happy when most seem agreeable to (almost) everything that you say. They will sometimes clap and applause you and make you feel on top of the world. The fact is that, more often than not, it’s impossible to have everyone agree with us. The root of such coherent synchronicity lies in one’s strict adherence to social norms, especially in contemporary societies where inter-dependent relationships are the key to one’s survival in love, work and life. While some may regard such actions as insincere, it should be noted that while one’s principles should not be breached, adherence to social norms is merely a way to establish and build rapport with others. While some may not agree with such a technique, it cannot be denied that this is a common social practice and we have to learn to live with it. However, how do we find out who are not agreeable when all seems to be agreeable? One way will be to build agreement up to a point where almost all members have agreed. Then, at this point, bring up points of disagreement to balance the argument. Bring up doubts. There will be some members at this point who will continue with this line of thought, who will continue to contribute their opposing views to balance the pre-determined stand made previously. Another way will be to observe the members who are sitting cross-armed or appearing straight-faced – the minority who choose to show their disagreement overtly. While most will choose to agree with the facilitator as mentioned above, observe the few who wouldn’t. As facilitators, let these few understand that there are grounds for disagreement and then step aside to give them room to disagree and offer their view points.
Most quiet critics are not quiet by choice. They remain quiet because they are usually in the minority and hence hesitant to speak up or provide an alternative voice. If, as facilitators, we are able to give them the opportunity to speak up without any risk of being ridiculed, they will most likely speak up. What are left are our facilitation skills that determine how smoothly this can be carried out.
Overseeing and influencing group dynamics is an art form and is never easy. Reading what is written above will not make you a great facilitator. You might be wondering why I have spend much time and effort in writing them then. The reason is because the notes above are for your own self-reflection after you have facilitated a group discussion session. Read it once before you facilitate a session and read it again soon after.
See the difference for yourself.
Most of us read books for knowledge but the real road to gaining wisdom and insights through life is actually experiential. If this is the case, what are the use of books then? They are meant to evoke enlightening thoughts and sparking insights, further deepening the life lessons that we have already learnt and deeply embedding them into our psyche – after we have truly lived.
Life is meant to be lived, and not read.